Local pipefitter expertise supports growing biomanufacturing industry in Central Illinois

 Top down view of IBRL’s fermentation row showing piping connecting utilities to each fermentation skid.
Top down view of IBRL’s fermentation area showing piping connecting utilities to each fermentation skid.

URBANA, Ill. — Complex biomanufacturing equipment is required to turn corn and soybeans into value-added products through the process of fermentation. New initiatives led by the Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 149 and the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) are training more skilled tradespeople to support this rapidly growing industry in Central Illinois. 

IBRL is a 42,000-square-foot facility that has served more than 100 clients looking to biomanufacturing to produce new food ingredients, alternative proteins, biofuels, bioplastics, sustainable textiles, ag inputs, cosmetics, and more. Based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the IBRL is part of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and The Grainger College of Engineering

IBRL is also part of the Illinois Fermentation and Agricultural Biomanufacturing (iFAB) Regional Innovation and Technology Hub designated by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) to boost bioprocessing and precision fermentation industry growth in Champaign, Piatt, and Macon counties.  

“One of the important aspects of the iFAB Tech Hub is the quality and range of jobs it will create — to grow biomanufacturing will require a wide range of expertise including trades, scientists, technicians, and engineers. We are excited to connect skilled workers with desirable opportunities in this field,” said Beth Conerty, iFAB regional innovation officer and IBRL associate director of business development. 

As a designated Tech Hub, iFAB has cleared the first phase of the EDA Tech Hubs program and qualifies to apply for phase two funding of $45 million to $70 million. Phase two funding would allow IBRL to expand by 40,000 square feet to support innovation and job growth in precision fermentation. 

In addition, phase two funding would support workforce development through Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 149 and other consortium members including Parkland College, Richland Community College, Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, Workforce Investment Solutions, Illinois AgriFood Alliance, and a construction management program offered through ABE at U. of I.

To meet the growing needs of iFAB’s 30 partner organizations, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 149 opened a new training center in Savoy, Ill. The five-year apprenticeship program guarantees opportunities for jobs with Local 149 upon completion. 

Through a partnership with Parkland College, graduates can also earn an associate's degree in construction trade technology by taking courses designed to support career growth. Parkland also offers an Early College and Career Academy (ECCA) and Highway Construction Careers Training Program (HCCTP) that provide pathways into the construction trades.

“Pipefitting is a career well suited to people who like to solve problems, use math, and work with their hands, and biomanufacturing offers unlimited opportunities for skilled tradespeople,” said journeyperson pipefitter BJ Glasa, who completed a Local 149 apprenticeship nearly 20 years ago.

In 2016, Glasa helped build the IBRL as a general foreperson with Davis-Houk Mechanical. Shortly after, Glasa went on to join the Facility & Services team at the U. of I. where he was assigned to projects at IBRL due to his familiarity with the building’s piping layout and valve locations. A few odd jobs transformed into a full-time role as the facility’s list of clients and needs expanded. 

“BJ immediately became the resource that we didn’t know we needed,” said Brian Jacobson, IBRL’s associate director of strategic operations. “Frankly, he now knows more about bioprocessing pipefitting than anybody. He has tremendous specialized expertise in this area.”

Today, the building operates at capacity, and Glasa is instrumental in equipment installations, repairs, and maintenance needed to keep the facility running. In addition to outfitting the IBRL from top to bottom, he has assisted with necessary modifications and installations to bring another iFAB partner, Boston Bioprocess, to full functionality.

Most pipefitters work on new construction projects, in all weather, with blueprints and a clearly defined goal for each day. IBRL offers pipefitters a more controlled environment but with uncontrollable needs and demands.

For Glasa, it is a pipefitter’s dream — he loves the variety that the biomanufacturing industry offers. 

“Some pipefitters might only work with domestic water for years,” Glasa said. “But in this building, you can work with domestic and chilled water, steam and compressed air, nitrogen and vacuum lines, and natural gas — almost everything to do in the pipefitting industry is all in this one building.” 

IBRL’s facilities contain copper, carbon steel, CPVC, and more stainless-steel pipes than Glasa has ever seen on a job. Stainless is the cleanest, strongest, and longest lasting of all pipes, but also the most difficult to cut, thread, and weld.

Glasa’s crowning achievement is the “fermentation row” — an incredibly intricate composition of pipes and valves that services every fermentation project at the IBRL. Several industry peers have used this innovative design as a basis for their facilities.

“When we built the facility, it was all drawn by architects and engineers, so I was pretty much following blueprints, which is a big part of the job,” Glasa said. “But none of that rack was engineered — they told me point A and what they needed to get to point B, and then I figured a way to route it all out there. I built that rack to provide very specific pressures, temperatures, flow rates, every piece of it, from that wall to the other equipment.”

IBRL and the fermentation row are continually evolving thanks to Glasa’s expertise, but space is a limiting factor, Conerty said. “The EDA’s phase II funding will allow IBRL to expand to help more companies harness precision fermentation to launch new sustainable products that benefit our society.”

Contact Beth Conerty at bconerty@illinois.edu to learn more about the iFAB Tech Hub, opportunities for bioprocessing pilot projects at IBRL, biomanufacturing workforce development, and more. 

The Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing (iFAB) Tech Hub brings together a consortium of 30 partner organizations representing academic, industry, government, and nonprofit partners who are committed to catalyzing bioprocessing and precision fermentation industry growth in Champaign, Piatt, and Macon counties. iFAB is part of the Innovate Illinois initiative.

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